It is not often that a saint is best known for who they are related to. This makes sense, because the Church does not proclaim one a saint based on their family pedigree, but rather on the holiness of their lives, the witness they provide to Christians of later times, and the ways in which they can guide the faithful on the path toward communion with God.
However, it seems as though the typical answer to the question “Who is St. Monica?” is “St. Augustine’s mother.” Is this a fair assessment of this holy woman? No, St. Monica was raised to the altars for a greater reason than this, and her example should be recognized and followed by Christians in all times and places.
The story of the blessed life of St. Monica is, of course, intrinsically tied to those of her children. As a mother, her every effort was for the sake of her children and their eternal souls, doing everything she could to lead them to God and help them get to heaven. But how exactly did her life as a mother lead her to sainthood, and what does this have to say to us today?
Monica was born in 331 AD, in Tagaste, in North Africa. She was a child of Christian parents, and early in life she married a pagan man named Patricius, who held a post in Tagaste. We are told that Patricius was not a loving husband. Monica suffered greatly at the hands of her husband; he was ill-tempered, and his pagan-in-name-only “religious sensibilities” clashed with Monica’s devout Christian practices. She prayed constantly, gave alms to the poor, and this angered Patricius. However, it is said that he always respected her practices, and admired Monica’s selfless qualities, although they could anger him so.
Monica supported the other wives in Tagaste in similar situations to hers, and her example of patience and kind, Christian love, was a powerful witness to these women.
Patricius was not terribly supportive of Monica’s desire to raise their children as Christians. They had three children that survived infancy: Augustine, Navigius, and Perpetua. As a young child, Augustine fell seriously ill, and Monica begged her husband to allow their son to be baptized. Patricius had been unmoving on this matter, but agreed to let the boy be baptized due to his condition. However, when Augustine recovered, Patricius changed his mind, and would not allow the baptism. Monica was crushed, and heartbroken.
While she was distraught over the potential state of her son’s soul, and his fate if he did not get baptized, Monica’s faith and patience never faltered. She continued to pray, to earnestly seek God’s blessing over her children – even (and especially) when it seemed as though her children had gone astray.
As Augustine grew, astray he did indeed begin to go. He even describes himself as growing increasingly lazy in his younger years, and began to run with a bit of a rough crowd. As Monica’s fears for her son grew ever more acute, a great grace was placed in her life, as her husband, Patricius, became a Christian. Perhaps this was God encouraging Monica not to lose faith in regards to her children, or perhaps Monica’s unfaltering patience and steadfast faith served as such a powerful witness that Patricius himself was moved to conversion. While his reasons for conversion remain a mystery, one thing is clear: Monica remained faithful to her God, regardless of what she faced.
Patricius died in 371 AD, when Monica was 40 and Augustine was 17 years old. At this point in his life, Augustine had begun to stray ever further from Orthodox Christianity. Augustine was studying in Carthage, and during this time he became a Manichean, a heretical strand of Christianity of the time. When he returned home, he was driven away by his mother, as she was so distraught over the changes in his beliefs.
Monica received a vision shortly thereafter, which encouraged her to reconcile with Augustine. She continued to pray for her son, continued to dedicate her efforts to the saving of his soul. Augustine left for Rome, and later Milan, and Monica followed. It was in Milan that they would have an encounter with a figure that would change their lives, and change the course of western Christian thought.
The bishop of Milan at the time was St. Ambrose. Through the influence of Ambrose, Augustine left his heretical ways behind him, and was finally baptized in 387 by the great bishop. Monica and her son then had months of joy and blessed happiness, and they began their journey back to North Africa. However, this was not to last. At Ostia, on their journey home, Monica died.
Augustine, in his Confessions, paid tribute to his mother, including the following beautiful passage:
“What, then, was that which did grievously pain me within, but the newly-made wound, from having that most sweet and dear habit of living together suddenly broken off? I was full of joy indeed in her testimony, when, in that her last illness, flattering my dutifulness, she called me kind, and recalled, with great affection of love, that she had never heard any harsh or reproachful sound come out of my mouth against her. But yet, O my God, who made us, how can the honour which I paid to her be compared with her slavery for me? As, then, I was left destitute of so great comfort in her, my soul was stricken, and that life torn apart as it were, which, of hers and mine together, had been made but one.” (Book IX, 30)
It is said that Monica was once consoled by a bishop with the words, “The child of those tears shall never perish.” This prophetic sentiment may have gone a long way in encouraging Monica’s persistent faith, and dogged patience. When we look at Monica’s whole story, it becomes clear that she suffered a great deal, in spite of her dedication to her Christian life. Perhaps she felt like Job, persecuted and pestered by the devil, her faith tested, her patience tested. But in spite of these hardships, she remained faithful.
St. Monica is not revered as a saint because she is the mother of St. Augustine. She is revered because of her holy life, her continued persistence in the practice of the virtues of patience and faith.